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Sunday, November 14, 2010

Sam Harris and The Moral Landscape

Many people, especially in the United States, will read "How science can determine human values" and recoil in horror at the word determine, especially when it is penned by someone considered an "enemy" of religion. "Only God", they will say, "determines what moral values are. Scientists should stick to science and leave moral values alone." My suggestion is that, if you are one such person, read on. Science has more to contribute to the moral landscape than you think.

"Science has long been in the value business," Harris writes on pages 143 and 144 of the paperback edition. "Despite a widespread belief to the contrary, scientific validity is not the result of scientists abstaining from making value judgments; rather, scientific validity is the result of scientists making their best efforts to value principles of reasoning that link their beliefs to reality, through reliable chains of evidence and argument. This is how norms of rational thought are made effective... The answer to the question 'What should I believe, and why should lI believe it?' is generally a scientific one" backed up by theory and evidence that is both verifiable and verified.

"[Q]uestions about values -- about meaning, morality, and life's larger purpose -- are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures. Values... translate into facts that can be scientifically understood: regarding positive and negative social emotions, retributive impulses, the effects of specific laws and social institutions on human relationships, the neurophysiology of happiness and suffering, etc... The more we understand ourselves at the level of the brain, the more we will see that there are right and wrong answers to questions of human value" (pages 1 & 2). What is right and wrong and what is good and evil can now, because of the advances in neuroscience, be rooted in growing evidence about how the human brain works.

Over 50% of people living in the U.S. will read this and reject it as "ungodly" heresy. It is not. Though Harris is certainly no friend of religion and faith-based thinking, what he has to say on the subject of the moral landscape show that the value of moral truths like "do to others what you want them to do to you", "treat your neighbor as yourself" and "love one another" are linked to a growing body of research in psychology and neuroscience that demonstrates that what is moral and immoral "relates to the intentions and behaviors that affect the well-being of conscious creatures" (pages 32, 33).

My work as a mental health professional supports the notion that some things contribute to well-being and flourishing and some things do not. I used to think in terms of what works to create well-being, and what destroys it and creates suffering instead. Compassion, kindness, listening to hear and understand, and attention/attentiveness contribute to well-being, flourishing and happiness. Violence, resentment, hatred, addiction, intimidation and intolerance contribute to (and create) sadness, suffering, increased violence, loneliness, destruction and death. It is nice to see my hunches supported by neuroscience.

Science can and does have something vitally important to say about human values and the moral landscape. Pick up a copy of The Moral Landscape and study it. Hopefully it is but the first in a growing number of books on the subject.  

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